Richard Nisley


A Gearhead's Devotion
Motor Racing Released - Feb 02, 2015

If you’re into cars, the following four book reviews should kick-start your engine.

CARS AT SPEED, by Robert Daley — When "Cars at Speed" appeared in bookstores 1961, it was an immediate best-seller. Being written by a New York Times sports reporter didn't hurt. Robert Daley was an outstanding writer with a keen eye for detail and a sense that something was amiss in a sport where drivers died regularly. In one particularly bloody season, three ranking drivers perished in four months, while a fourth died on public roads driving too fast.

Daley sums up an era (the 1950s) by describing in poetic detail the great, lost road racing circuits of Europe, and the great drivers who triumphed and sometimes died on them: Juan Fangio of Argentina, Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorne of Great Britain, Frenchman Jean Behra, and American Phil Hill being the best known and most dominant. Daley knew many of them well. He dispatches with making heroes of them--they did not view themselves as heroes, he tells us, why should we? Daley befriended one of them (Phil Hill), worried about all of them, and felt the loss on a personal level whenever one of them perished in a crash. That is what makes this book compelling. We, too, come to know them in reading their remarkable stories.

Daley's portrait of Spaniard Fon de Portago has been republished in several magazines over the years and is perhaps the most poignant story. We see de Portago as a living, breathing person, an intellectual who read a book a day, and a national hero in his own country, who pushes the limit once too often and pays the ultimate price in a violent crash that kills him, his co-driver and 11 spectators, needlessly, as Daley makes clear.

Daley was highly criticized for his frank reporting of accidents and death, something not done by the dominant British press at the time. In fact, Daley brought modern reporting techniques to a sport that for too long had romanticized its drivers while downplaying accidents and death that were all too common.

EDSEL FORD AND E.T. GREGORIE: THE REMARKABLE DESIGN TEAM AND THEIR CLASSIC FORDS OF THE 1930s AND 1940s, by Henry Dominguez — Edsel Ford was not the shy and retiring type easily pushed around by his inflexible father, as some historians would have us believe. That is among the many revelations contained in this informative and very-readable book by Henry Dominguez. Dominguez did his homework. He interviewed designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie over a period of eight years and a number of others who worked for Ford during the 1930s and ‘40s. The result is a fascinating story of how Edsel Ford managed to pry the Model T from his father’s vice-grip, and to transition the Ford Motor Company into the modern era. Henry Ford was not an easy man to work for, as this book and many others demonstrate with stark clarity. His son learned how to pick his spots, however, and was able to make a number of key decisions that kept the company from failing. That the Ford Motor Company succeeded during the Depression is a testament to Edsel’s persistence and fortitude.

The role played by E.T. Gregorie in this real-life psycho drama was crucial. Gregory could not fight Edsel’s battles for him, but he was the rock Edsel needed, a bit of sanity in a world of management bullies, paranoia, and archaic thinking. As important, Gregorie shared Edsel’s artistic vision of cleaned-lined, low-slung automobiles. Gregorie’s role, which he freely admits, was to put Edsel’s (not his) ideas down on paper, and see them through to full-scale clay mock-ups, and then into finished body designs ready for the tool-and-die makers. Gregorie did his share of original design, certainly—the stunning 1940 Continental was all his—but he couldn’t have done it without his close working relationship with Edsel Ford.

Without Edsel’s influence, it seems likely the Ford Motor Company would have gone on making crude black Model Ts into the 1930s and been snuffed out by the Depression, as so many auto makers were. As company president, Edsel oversaw the purchase of the Lincoln Automobile Company, introduced color into the product line, spear-headed the transition from the Model T to the Model A, created Ford’s styling department (and put Gregorie in charge), and moved body production in-house (up to 1937, car bodies were furnished by outside suppliers). By 1939, Ford produced a five-car lineup to match General Motors’ five-car line-up, thanks to Edsel Ford.

Sadly, Edsel succumbed to the same ailment as a number of Ford executives, known as “Forditis,” or stomach ulcers. In Edsel’s case, it proved fatal. He died May 26, 1943, age 49. His death surprised everyone. Many knew Edsel was ill, but they did not know the seriousness of the condition. Says Gregorie: “The old man (Henry) was always an anchor around Edsel’s neck, as far as the product was concerned. The old man didn’t know a thing about design, but he was an obstruction in the way of design, and he had to be reckoned with. And that was an unfortunate situation. I think that is what ultimately killed Edsel—worrying about how to handle the old man.”

FERRARI: A CHAMPION’S VIEW, by Phil Hill — It turns out Phil Hill, besides being America's first F-1 world champion and a real gentlemen, was a terrific writer. "A Champion's View" is that rare coffee table book in which the text outshines the photos, thanks to Hill's lively prose and insider's account of some the world's most beautiful and exciting sports cars ever built. All the Ferrari sports cars Hill raced are here, plus a number of others, all shown to their advantage in glorious color, beginning with the first Ferrari to roll out of Enzo's shop in Maranello, the Auto Avio Costruzioni 815, which Alberto Ascari raced in the 1940 Mille Miglia, up to the carbon-fiber 333 SP, created in 1994, and raced by Andy Evans in IMSA's World Sports Car Championship.

Phil's favorite? The 4.0-liter 335 S. Says the author: "Ferrari's 335 S exemplified the sort of racing I liked best. No engine restrictions, no fuel mileage considerations, just you and a very powerful unblown engine in a chassis as good as that engine, working like hell to get to the finish line first." The machine was blindingly quick. Mike Hawthorne broke the lap record at Le Mans in 1957 in one, setting a mark that lasted until 1962, when Hill broke it with another 4.0-liter Ferrari, the 330 TRI/LM.

Money was tight during Hill's eight years with Ferrari, and it wasn't unusual for an engine or a chassis to be recycled. Hill: "The V12 engine in the 335 S in which Alfonso de Portago was killed in the Mille Miglia was later used in the 412 MI special I raced at Riverside in 1959" (and won the race).

Hill remained a captive of the Ferrari mystique even after he departed at the end of 1962. The V12 was a particular fascination. "I always had great faith in those power plants," he writes. "And in 1967 they seemed so sophisticated compared to our Chevrolet V8s (the engine of the Chaparral 2F Hill raced that year)." He adds: "One could almost believe they should have been able to do more against the Chevys even though the V12s had three fewer liters of swept displacement. I remember wondering why the Ferrari P4s weren't a little more competitive . . . some spot in my heart wanted to believe the tradition.” It's comments like this coupled with Hill's encyclopedic knowledge that makes this book endlessly fascinating and a must-have for enthusiasts.

CLASSIC RACING ENGINES by Karl Ludvigsen — You know you're a hard-core racing fan when you buy a book entitled "Classic Racing Engines." A book such as this is at the very center of being a gearhead. All the great legendary engines are here, among them the 1913 Peugeot 3-liter four cylinder (that influenced engine design for the next five decades), the jewel-like 1925 Bugatti 2-liter straight-eight; the 1936 Auto Union 6-liter V16 (my personal favorite), the 1955 Porsche 1.5-liter flat-4, the 1958 Ferrari Dino 2.4-liter V6, the 1966 Ford Cosworth 3-liter V8 (that dominated F-1 racing for 15 years), the 1970 Ferrari 3-liter flat-12, the 1984 Renault 1.5-liter turbocharged V6, and so on and so forth, up to the Mercedes Benz 3.4-liter V8 Indy engine of the 1990s. It's all here: engine specs, diagrams, the stories behind the engines, and photos (not a lot of photos, but enough). Author Karl Ludvigsen keeps the technical details interesting which is usually a problem with books such as this.

It you're a true-blue motor racing fan, following motor racing is a journey. First, you get sucked-in by the noise, the speed, and the excitement; then you identify with the drivers; then you learn about the uniqueness of each circuit; then you become curious about the cars, how they work, and about the engineers who design them; and then you become curious about the engines, which leads you to buy a book such as this. After that, there's no turning back. You're forever hooked.

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